Almost exactly a year ago we visited the Orthodox blog written by Fr. Stephen Freeman, Glory to God for All Things. That’s our source for today’s excellent post The Narrow Road. You can read it here, but you’re encouraged to click the title and read it at source.
There is a small collection of Christ’s sayings that center on the topic of the “narrow road.” The heart of the topic is that the way into the kingdom of God is difficult and very few will find it. The sayings are troubling.
Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it (Matthew 7:13-14)
So the last will be first, and the first last. For many are called, but few chosen (Matthew 2o:16).
Then one said to Him, “Lord, are there few who are saved?” And He said to them, “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I say to will, will seek to enter and will not be able” (Luke 13:23-24).
“And again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God.” When His disciples heard it, they were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?” But Jesus looked at them and said to them, “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” (Matthew 19:24-26).
The sayings are troubling because we think about the Kingdom of God in a passive manner. Heaven has become forensic – a legal reward for a life that meets the religious/moral requirements. These verses seem to indicate that the standard requirement might be quite strict and that very few will qualify.
In such a forensic model – the problem lies within the standard. God is looking for a “few, good men.” Deeper than the standard – the problem lies within God. In this model, we have been created by a very strict God, exacting in His demands, unwilling to yield to the weaknesses of human nature. Not just the universe, but the God behind the universe is stacked against us. Who then can be saved?
The difficulties presented by these sayings reveal difficulties with the Kingdom of God when it is misunderstood in a forensic or legal manner. If the Kingdom of God is just one more thing that we get into – in which simply being-there-as-a-reward is the point – the gospel becomes rather pathetic and the God behind it, alarming.
The way into the Kingdom is difficult, the path narrow, because the way itself is actually difficult and the path is actually narrow. These things are not true because God wants it to be hard for us to enter the Kingdom – they are hard on account of the nature of the spiritual disease that afflicts us.
No one is surprised to be told that the path to the remission of their cancer will be difficult (generally we are simply glad to hear that there is any path at all!). Nor do we blame the doctor for the difficulty of our treatment.
The spiritual disease (sin) that afflicts us stikes at the very fiber of our humanity, the very mode of our being. St. Paul describes sin as corruption (φθορὰ), a word that essentially means “rot.” It is what happens when the process of death works in us unchecked. Death corrupts us, body, soul and spirit.
The teaching of the New Testament is not about how to be admitted to paradise – it is about how to become the kind of human who can actually live in paradise. Paradise is not a moral achievement – it is an ontological change.
I declare to you, brothers and sisters, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does corruption inherit incorruption. (1Co 15:50)
The life of change and healing (being transformed from glory to glory into the image of Christ) is the narrow way. The borders of the road are marked with radical honesty and a willingness to endure and engage whatever is required for the transformation. We move from the fragmentation of our individual life towards the integration and wholeness of life in Christ, characterized by the fullness of self-emptying love. This is the life of grace – but grace can be painful and will take us down the difficult path. St. Paul was knocked off a horse and blinded by grace. Works would be easier!
Christ is quite clear about the narrow path – there are very few who find it. The conversion of Christianity from the narrow path to world-wide religion is the elevation of the wide-road of destruction to the place of a false salvation. The Christianity of ideas and arguments, entertainment as worship, morality as asceticism, is the path found by the many. It is an adaptation and misuse of certain ideas associated with Christ. It was not created by saints nor built on the blood of martyrs. It will run continue until its cultural usefulness has run its course. It will serve as an inoculation for many – making them immune to the grace of the narrow way. They will want nothing to do with Christianity.
If this is true, will only a few be saved?
In this lifetime, only a few will be saved. Only a few will live a life of self-emptying love. Only a few will endure the humiliation of honesty. Only a few will face the despair of hell and give thanks. Only a few will forgive everyone for everything.
Christ said that with men this is impossible. The very few who walk this path are living proof of the existence of God – for with God this path is possible. In Orthodoxy, we call these few, “saints.” They are signposts and an assurance that our own struggles are never wasted. The narrow path is not a delusion – it is an awakening.
If only a few are saved in this lifetime – will many be saved beyond? The gospel contains a paradox on this very matter. As clearly as Christ teaches that the way is narrow and that very few find it, He also clearly teaches a universal proclamation of the good will of God.
For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved (John 3:16-17).
In the words of St. Peter:
“God is not willing that any should perish but that all should come to eternal life” (2 Peter 3:9).
The paradox rests between the few and the all. The temptation for many has been to reinvent Christianity as a religious shortcut for the all. In the shortcut, the narrow way is lost, and with it, the saints. One of the desert fathers said, “Prayer is struggle ’til a man’s dying breath.” This is the truth about true prayer (and true salvation) – but now we are told not only how easy prayer is, but even how easy it is to hear God (cf. When God Talks Back). On the narrow path most of the time is marked by silence.
Nevertheless, the paradox remains. I am confident of the good will of God and that His desire for all will be fulfilled in the mystery of His love. But to create a false paradise – a Christianity of the all in which no one is saved – is the path of destruction.
Strive to enter at the narrow door.
~ Fr. Stephen Freeman